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Non-Review Review: The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad is a stunning piece of blockbuster cinema.

There’s an understandable urge to treat The Suicide Squad as something of an outlier, particularly in the modern wave of big superhero blockbusters. After all, this is an R-rated blockbuster about a bunch of super-villains populated largely be characters that few people will recognise, let alone care about, and which exists in something of a strange continuity limbo away from the rest of the shared continuity. It is darkly funny, bitterly bleak, and decidedly uninterested in things like brand synergy. It is a sequel to a maligned film from a director now best known for his work with a rival studio and a rival property.

Squad goals.

Looked at from a certain angle, The Suicide Squad must seem as alien as the monster that rampages through the film’s third act – a space oddity that fell to Earth. However, this just makes it all the more remarkable that writer and director James Gunn has managed to fashion all of this into a thrilling and spectacular piece of blockbuster cinema that understands the appeal and the potential of the superhero genre without forsaking its own distinct perspective and while delivering on everything that a well-made populist blockbuster should.

There are very few superhero movies that are put together like The Suicide Squad. That’s their problem.

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New Escapist Column! On How “Loki” Betrayed Itself…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With Loki wrapping up its first season this week, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at the show. In particular, how the season finale betrayed the show’s core themes and characters.

Loki is a story about many things, but it is primarily about power. It is about whether individuals have the power to determine the paths of their own lives. It is about who has the power to determine what stories get told and what they do with that power. It is also about how power intrinsically acts in its own best interests. There’s a lot of really interesting and biting stuff in Loki, which makes it slightly frustrating when the final makes a conscious choice to rob its characters of their agency, to reveal that this story doesn’t belong to them, and to argue that power must be centralised. In the end, Loki betrayed itself.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On How “WandaVision” Lags Behind “Legion” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”….

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Today marked the release of the WandaVision finale, so it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the season as a whole, and where it stands in terms of the modern television landscape.

One of the most striking aspects of the first half of WandaVision‘s first season was the skill and fidelity that the show demonstrated in recreating classic television sitcoms. The show’s basic conceit found the characters journeying through television’s history and hurdling towards the present. Unfortunately, WandaVision stumbled when it hit the present, particularly when compared to two relatively recent shows tackling similar themes and working in similar genres blending fantasy and reality as meditations on trauma and mental health problems: Legion and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Video! On Power Without Responsibility in the MCU…

So, as I have mentioned before, I am launching a new video series as a companion piece to In the Frame at The Escapist. The video will typically launch with the Monday article, and be released on the magazine’s YouTube channel the following week. This is kinda cool, because we’re helping relaunch the magazine’s film channel – so if you can throw a subscription our way, it would mean a lot.

This week, I take a look at the power fantasy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Captain America: Civil War, the MCU becomes a study in power without any responsibility.

211. The Wolf of Wall Street – Summer of Scorsese (#142)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn, Jay Coyle and Darren Mooney, with special guests Luke Dunne and Aoife Martin, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, concluding our Summer of Scorsese with his most recent film on the list, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

Martin Scorsese is one of the defining directors in American cinema, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that have shaped and defined cinema across generations: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Kundun, Gangs of New YorkThe Aviator, The DepartedShutter IslandHugo, The Irishman. The Summer of Scorsese season offers a trip through his filmography via the IMDb‘s 250.

Jordan Belfort developed a reputation as one of the most amoral stockbrokers working in the financial industry, wearing the name “the Wolf of Wall Street” as a badge of honour. Belfort is afforded the chance to tell his own side of the story, of the gaudy excess and tasteless indulgence that defined the industry for so many years.

At time of recording, it was ranked 142nd on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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“Whose Gesture Would Remove Me?” Fate and Chance in Sorcerer and The Wages of Fear

“You going to tell me where I’m going?”

“I swear to Christ, I don’t know.”

The fates seemed aligned against William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.

The very idea of the film was an act of hubris, with Friedkin daring to remake one of the classics of world cinema. The Wages of Fear is justifiably regarded as one of the best movies ever made, and so for an American director to assume that he could remake it in his own image felt like an act of arrogance. Sorcerer often felt like a doomed project, suffering from wound both rooted in Friedkin’s self-regard and resulting from broader cultural trends.

Friedkin’s refusal to compromise cost the movie a bankable leading man in Steve McQueen, something that Friedkin regrets to this day. The decision to shoot on location South America led to a ballooning budget, conflicts with cast and crew and a variety of logistical difficulties. Friedkin refused to compromise with the studio during production, being openly antagonistic when they offered notes. The decision to open the movie with seventeen minutes of subtitled prologue may have alienated audiences, along with the use of title that conjured images of an Exorcist  sequel.

Perhaps all of this was meaningless. Maybe there was nothing that Friedkin could have done during the production of Sorcerer would have made a difference. After all, Sorcerer had the misfortune of opening a week after Star Wars. George Lucas’ science-fantasy epic obliterated the more restrained and more cynical film. It’s debatable to what extent Steve McQueen’s face on a poster or more favourable reviews in the papers might have helped. Friedkin’s career might have fared better after the failure if he’d been easier to work with, but it seems the film itself was always doomed.

In its own way, this feels entirely appropriate. Sorcerer is a story about a vindictive and mean-spirited universe, one that seems actively antagonistic towards the characters who inhabit it. Sorcerer is a story about the whims of fate, and the inescapability of destiny, populated by characters who are doomed long before they sign on to a suicide mission to transport highly volatile dynamite across the Amazon. It seems entirely reasonable that Sorcerer itself would be just as ill-fated as any of its central characters, just as subject to the sinister machinations of a cruel world.

However, all of this gets at the most interesting aspect of Sorcerer, the part of the film that is most distinct from The Wages of Fear. The film is definitely a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic, but it does what most truly great remakes do: it finds a fresh angle on the same basic source material. In many ways, The Wages of Fear is a uniquely European blockbuster that exists in the context of the aftermath of the Second World War. Sorcerer is undeniably an American movie, one that insists on finding order in the chaos of the turbulent seventies.

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“… Because That’s What Heroes Do”: The Curious Definition of Heroism and the Politics of Power in “Infinity War” and “Endgame”…

Note: Obviously don’t read this if you haven’t seen both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Superhero films are the most ubiquitous form of twenty-first century blockbuster.

The summer season is increasingly crowded by blockbuster superhero releases. This year is actually a fairly tempered year for Marvel Studios. Only Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame are on the docket from the company, with Sony handling the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home later in the summer. However, the space between the two Marvel Studios releases included films like Shazam! and Hellboy. Later in the year, X-Men: Dark Phoenix will effectively close off Twentieth-Century Fox’s superhero blockbuster slate before it is folded into the Disney machine. Indeed, even the non-brand superheroes look to have had a fairly decent year; other releases this year include Glass and Brightburn, both movies with original characters playing with genre tropes.

There are lots of discussions about why the genre has become such a dominant feature of the pop cultural landscape. Perhaps it is simply down to technology, with advances in computer-generated animation allowing for more convincing depictions of the scale and drama expected in these sorts of stories. Guardians of the Galaxy would have been very difficult to make even a decade earlier, when it would have been next-to-impossible to animate Rocket Racoon on a workable budget. However, it may also be cultural. The rise of the modern superhero blockbuster film roughly coincided with the War on Terror, a connection rendered explicit in films like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Old-fashioned heroism was undoubtedly appealing at a time of political crisis.

This is interesting in the context of Endgame. In many ways, Endgame looks to be an event of biblical proportions. There is a reasonable chance that Endgame could become the most successful movie of all-time. There is a good chance that Endgame could have a one billion dollar opening weekend. Within hours of opening, the film film had already placed (highly) on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the top 250 movies of all-time. Endgame is a bona fides pop cultural phenomenon. It is a film that shakes the world underneath its feet. It is the culmination of a twenty-odd film journey, but it is also something of a conclusive statement on (at the very least) the modern iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most high-profile example of the superhero in modern cinema.

What is that statement? What is the film actually saying? To be fair, this was an issue with Avengers: Infinity War. It was very difficult to distill a singular thematic point or moral thesis from Infinity War, largely because the film was structured in such a way as to deny its central characters any agency or autonomy within the narrative. Infinity War was a breathtakingly cynical piece of corporate logistics, occasionally veering into downright nihilism. After all, the climax of the film unfolds in the way that it does simply because Stephen Strange sees that it is supposed happen that way. No choice that the characters make has any impact on what happens, because there is only ever one way that it could happen.

Endgame is interesting in how it builds on this. In particular, how Endgame chooses to define its central characters. If Endgame is to be the defining superhero story of the modern era, its definition of “heroism” is very esoteric.

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Not So Super, Hero: What Modern Superhero Blockbusters Could Learn From “Akira”…

This Saturday, as part of the annual “Anime April”, I’ll be discussing Akira on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first. You can listen to last week’s episode on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind here. You can listen to our episode on Akira here.

Akira is a startlingly influential film.

Even if a person hasn’t seen Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated masterpiece, they have undoubtedly felt its influence rippling through popular culture in various media. In music, Kanye West cites it as his “biggest creative inspiration”, to the point that his video for Stronger is almost a shot-for-shot remake. Rian Johnson has cited Akira as a major influence on his own Looper. Josh Trank and Max Landis’ Chronicle has a number of obvious similarities to Akira. Even outside of these direct references, individual elements of the film continue to have an outsized influence on American popular culture. The iconic red bike pops up in Ready Player One. Even individual shots have been mimicked and imitated, such as the fantastic “Akira bike slide” from early in the film.

Inevitably, there has been much talk of a potential Americanised remake of Akira. After all, there have been other big-budget live action adaptations of cult Japanese projects like Ghost in the Shell or Alita: Battle Angel, and so it is surprising it has taken so long. There were rumours of an adaptation by Albert Hughes that might star Morgan Freeman. (James Franco might have headlined.) More recently, Jordan Peele declined the invitation to direct the adaptation, despite his affection for the source material. The most recent rumours suggested that Leonardo DiCaprio might be producing a version directed by Taika Waititi, which would shift the action from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan. There were other significant changes made to the source story.

There are a variety of reasons why Akira has been so difficult to adapt. Most optimistically, it may simply be a case that so much of what made the original film iconic has already been filtered through to audiences in the movies indebted to it, like Looper or Chronicle; this is the challenge adapting John Carter of Mars following the success of films like Star Wars or Flash Gordon. More pragmatically, Akira is a story rooted in a very specific cultural context. It is not an American story, it is a story anchored very specifically in eighties Japan. Of course, this is not necessarily a problem; samurai films like Shichinin no Samurai or Yojimbo could be reworked for American audiences as cowboy films, their cultural context shifted in the journey across the Pacific. Still, it is a challenge.

However, this challenge of cultural translation suggests one of the fundamental issues with adapting Akira for American audiences. It is hard to define Akira in terms of a single genre; it is a coming of age science-fiction deconstruction of masculinity infused with a psychedelic sensibility. However, in terms of visual style and narrative flow, the movie’s closest relatives in contemporary American cinema are superhero films. Superheroes are, after all, the dominant American cinematic mode of the twenty-first-century to date. Indeed, a modern audience approaching Akira might be tempted to read it in the context of that genre. If Chronicle is to be considered “the American Akira”, it is notable that it uses the language of the superhero genre to translate the story.

However, there is something fundamentally different about the way in which Akira approaches the idea of the superhero figure as compared to mainstream superhero films, and this difference might demonstrate why an adaptation of Akira for American cinema might pose such a challenge.

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Non-Review Review: Loro

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Loro is certainly a Paolo Sorrentino film.

Loro is an interesting watch removed from its original context. It is nominally a biographical film covering the most defining Italian politician of the twenty-first century, Silvio Berlusconi. In reality, it feels like an attempt at something broader, a sweeping commentary on corruption and moral decay that just happens to exist (like so much of contemporary Italian culture, the film suggests) in the orbit of that towering figure. The film was originally released in Italy as a duology running a total of three-hours-and-one-quarter, Sorrentino combined both halves and cut forty-five minutes from the total runtime for international distribution.

It is a difficult film to parse outside of that context. It is difficult to tell if some of the gaps and hiccups in the film are down to the necessity of trimming a quarter of the runtime or simply due to the “inside baseball” nature of a film based around the national politics of a different country. This is not to suggest that Loro is impenetrable or nonsensical without any background knowledge. Indeed, Sorrentino goes out of his way to frame Loro as a universal story about concepts like sex, power, desire, and age. However, watching the film, it feels like there are gaps and lacunas in the narrative. Despite its extended runtime, Loro feels truncated.

And yet, in spite of these gaps, Loro has an incredible infectious energy that sustains it. While perhaps a little too unfocused and perhaps a little too simplistic, it is never anything less than compelling in its absurd study of power and corruption. Loro doesn’t necessarily have a lot to say, but it makes a point to say it all very well.

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Non-Review Review: All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World is an intriguing and uneven anthropological study of wealth.

Ridley Scott’s drama documenting the abduction of Paul Getty treats its subjects as members of a different species. In an introductory voice-over, the character of Paul Getty explains that the truly rich may as well come from “another planet.” They might look the same, but they are fundamentally different from ordinary people. At one point, John Paul Getty recalls an argument on how a publisher tried to change the title of his book from How to be Rich to How to Get Rich. Getty complains, “Getting rich is easy. Any fool can get rich. Being rich, that’s something else entirely.”

A Plum(mer) Role.

This idea simmers through All the Money in the World, the notion that there is something more than just a bank balance that separates the wealthy from the poor. “Money is never just money,” reflects advisor Fletcher Chase, and All the Money in the World suggests as much repeatedly. Throughout the film, journalists and paparazzi stalk the Getty family like wildlife photographers trying to snap a picture of some rare beast in its natural habitat. The Getty’s stand apart, and that sense of otherness is compounded by some measure beyond a balance in any account.

All the Money in the World is fascinating in its exploration of this idea, but it suffers from a lack of focus and clarity. All the Money in the World feels more like a series of vignettes than a single narrative story, a set of compelling sequences that never add up to a fulfilling whole. There is something intangible missing, as if the figures don’t quite add up. Then again, that flaw seems perfectly suited to the characters at the centre of the narrative.

Oil’s well that ends well.

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